Enjoyed very much The People in the Books: Judaica Manuscripts, an exhibition of old Jewish manuscripts at the The Rare Book and Manuscript Library of Butler Library at Columbia University. (But can we please, please stop with the people of the book puns?) The books themselves did not offer too much to consider at first glance, just a bunch of old books that might pique this or that scholarly interest. It’s a relatively small exhibition with lots of information. I decided not to pay too close attention to the wall texts. This decision allowed me to move through the exhibition space, pick out what interested me the most, and then to double back.
What struck me most was the use of visual material. The books themselves are, as far as manuscripts go, plain and pretty un-extraordinary. Correct me if I’m wrong, but they seem, generally speaking, to have been intended for more workaday rather than display purposes (a large Machzor and a couple of ketubot being exceptions). The same is true of the visual materials. Like the books themselves, they do not so much as impress, at first, as much as much as they instruct, at which point, as you stand back to take better notice, they begin to charm. As always, the more you look, the more you get.
This, then, is a tentative theory about old Jewish visual culture.
In the worlds of Jewish books and visual culture, the lion’s share of attention goes always to the most lavish books meant for display purpose. We could call these “simchah books,” relating as they do to happy occasions such as circumcisions, weddings, holidays like Yom Kippur and Passover. Illuminated ketuboth (marriage contracts) and Haggadot, as well as synagogue ornaments are the mothers of all pre-modern Jewish visual platforms. These are the most lavish display objects, no holds barred. If you want visual excess and decorative life, that’s where you go. With more lavish things, a distinct pleasure purpose is intended to illuminate, to magnify, to glorify God, the rite, and the sponsor who commissioned the object at great cost to himself.
In contrast, I’m guessing that the low Jewish visual culture of more workaday books is purely information-based –biological, liturgical-ritual, astronomical, kabbalastic. Only rarely, if at all, do these materials yield narrative information. The mystical charts map out the body of God. The astronomical maps chart out the heavens. The typographical variations like the large typeset and graphic layout in the large, oversized format Machzor, meant to be read out loud in public by the shaliach tzibur (prayer leader) indicate which parts of the Yom Kippur liturgy require special attention. The schematic drawing of the upside down dead chicken meant to assist its ritual slaughter drew my attention almost at the last minute. There’s an occasional character to this visual material that I think is part of its punch.
None of this more workday character gets conveyed by the online exhibition, which is simply gorgeous and recommends itself in its own right. You can see it here:
Make sure to hit the topic buttons listed at the top left corner of the screen under the homepage to see images of individual texts.
From the online exhibit, I’m recommending “the illuminated circumcision prayers” https://exhibitions.cul.columbia.edu/exhibits/show/hebrew_mss/lifecycle/x893_t71
and also this calendar book https://exhibitions.cul.columbia.edu/exhibits/show/hebrew_mss/timekeepers/x893_se36
These (Biology, Liturgy, Astronomy, Kabbalah) are the 4 interlocking worlds of the cosmos as viewed from perspective of Judaism as viewed from the perspective of medieval and early modern Jewish book culture.